TORONTO - Plans by Ontario's cash-strapped Liberal government to close three jails to save money will spark major court delays, send transportation costs soaring and devastate rural communities, critics charge.
Jails in Owen Sound and Walkerton will close Sunday, while a third in Sarnia is slated for the chopping block in 2013.
But it's not too late for the Liberals to reverse a decision that will actually end up costing taxpayers more in the end, critics say.
The government insists the closures, spelled out in last spring's budget, will save $8 million a year by moving the inmates to newer and larger facilities in Windsor and Penetanguishene, north of Barrie.
"We have to look at our expenditure in Ontario because our priority is health care and education, and we'll find savings," said Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur.
"These jails are inefficient and old, so we are modernizing our infrastructure."
But three Progressive Conservatives who represent the affected areas believe costs will skyrocket while the local communities suffer.
Lisa Thompson, who represents Huron-Bruce, said closing the Walkerton jail will be "devastating" for the town.
"They're stripping families out of a rural community and an economic driver that generates approximately $3 million a year," she said.
"I feel really, really strongly that the decision to close our rural institutions has been just a knee-jerk reaction to the government's budget deficit."
Others say the government doesn't have the numbers to justify the closures.
"We haven't been able to get any facts out of the minister or out of the government to show those numbers and how they're validating them," said Tory Bill Walker, who represents Owen Sound.
"We just don't believe that they're there to begin with. And the fear is exactly that: we're going to see increased costs that are going to come back to the local community and to the people of Ontario at large."
Bob Bailey, who represents Sarnia-Lambton, said the government is trying to hide the true costs of closing the Sarnia jail.
Last April, he made a request under freedom-of-information laws for ministry documents related to the closing of the jail, then paid the $833 fee.
After numerous delays, he finally received 200 pages of documents in November that contained almost no financial information, he said.
It suggests the government did no cost-benefit analysis before deciding to close the jails, he added.
"We don't think the numbers are there," Bailey said. "That was their perfect opportunity to show them if they had any at all, and they didn't."
The documents state that prisoner transportation will be taken over by the Ontario Provincial Police "at no cost to the municipality," unless the local municipal service wishes to continue to provide the service.
However, the ministry is offering $2.30 per kilometre for the transport of prisoners to and from the larger jails, according to a separate document obtained by The Canadian Press.
The ministry letter, dated Nov. 15, states that the OPP Transport Unit will take over transportation for prisoners who will be moved to Penetanguishene once the Owen Sound jail closes.
But should the local OPP detachment "deem it necessary to facilitate offender transport" between their area of jurisdiction and Penetanguishene, the ministry will reimburse them at a rate of $2.30 per kilometre "for all costs incurred," it said.
Elected provincial politicians can charge 44 cents per kilometre for travel.
Bailey said it's another sign that the public will pay a hefty price for closing the jails.
"There's only one taxpayer, and we don't believe that the numbers are going to justify closing (the jails)," he said.
However, the government said it has already factored in $500,000 in transportation costs in the $8-million annual savings figure.
Closing the Owen Sound and Walker jails will save $7.4 million in operating costs and $500,000 over three years for capital maintenance, said Rebecca MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for Meilleur.
It costs more than $275 a day to keep an inmate in Owen Sound and Walkerton, compared to $125 at larger facilities like Penetanguishene, she said.
There are 37 inmates at the Owen Sound jail, 44 inmates in Walkerton and 111 inmates in Sarnia.
Penetanguishene has 1,044 inmates, but has a capacity of 1,184. The new facility in Windsor, set to open in 2013, will have 315 beds. The current jail has 137 inmates.
But a community group that's trying to stop the Sarnia jail closure claims the move will actually end up costing provincial and municipal taxpayers $3 million a year.
The Save the Sarnia Jail committee argues the facility is still needed because municipal and provincial police, as well as First Nations police, the Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP all use it.
It could create legal problems if inmates in Windsor have difficulty consulting with their lawyers in Sarnia, and prevent offenders from serving their sentences on the weekend, the group said.
The facility also has a tunnel that connects it to the courthouse, which means the costs associated with transporting inmates to their court appearances is minimal, said David McPhail, the committee's chairman.
Additional police and equipment would be required to transfer inmates from their new home in Windsor